The New York Times
In My Father's Shadow: A Daughter Remembers Orson Wellesby Chris Welles Feder
"Orson Welles was - and remains - one of the truly iconic figures to emerge from the confusion of Hollywood and the indelible world of films. A "bad boy" who rankled the powerful studio czars, he was the creator and star of what is considered by many to be the greatest American film, Citizen Kane. Welles's importance in the pantheon of filmmakers, as well as the… See more details below
"Orson Welles was - and remains - one of the truly iconic figures to emerge from the confusion of Hollywood and the indelible world of films. A "bad boy" who rankled the powerful studio czars, he was the creator and star of what is considered by many to be the greatest American film, Citizen Kane. Welles's importance in the pantheon of filmmakers, as well as the controversy that surrounded his life, has given rise to some two dozen biographies. None of those books, however, was written by someone who knew him intimately, who witnessed the weakness and doubt behind his bravura facade, or who loved him as only a daughter can love a father." "Chris Welles Feder grew up just outside the limelight, a child of Hollywood, exposed to the world of films but, other than one small part in her father's movie version of Macbeth, never actually a part of it. Considered a genius by many and a failure by some, Orson Welles was constantly at work acting in or directing movies, yet whenever possible he spent time with Chris, one of the three daughters he fathered, each with a different woman. And though her parents' marriage faltered while she was still very young, Chris continued to adore this enigmatic man who was in and out of her life." In My Father's Shadow is a look at being in the shadow of a legendary figure, as well as an entertaining story of growing up a child of Hollywood. This classic story of a life in the public eye is told with affection and the wide-eyed wonder of a daughter who never stopped believing that someday she would truly know and understand her elusive and larger-than-life father.
The New York Times
- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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- 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)
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In My Father's ShadowA Daughter Remembers Orson Welles
By Chris Welles Feder
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILLCopyright © 2009 Chris Welles Feder
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGrowing Up in Movieland
The first time I saw Rita Hayworth, my father was sawing her in half. It was the final and most spectacular trick he performed on the opening night of his Mercury Wonder Show. It was August of 1943, the summer we were at war with Japan, and the magic show was for the benefit of our servicemen who were about to be shipped to the Pacific theater. It was held in a big circus tent erected on Cahuenga Boulevard in downtown Hollywood.
I can still smell the popcorn and the sawdust, still remember my excitement throughout the show, and how, unable to contain myself, I kept climbing up on my seat, ignoring my Scots nanny Marie who kept tugging on my dress and hissing, "Now you sit down again, madam, and behave yourself!" But I had to tell the people sitting in the row behind us, "That's my daddy up there. My daddy!" I had never seen him on the stage before that night.
Billed as Orson the Magnificent, he wore a fez and a voluminous black-and-white striped robe. He might look like the genie escaped from Aladdin's lamp, a genie whose smile seemed to say, "Be careful what you wish for," but his disguise didn't fool me, and I made sure, in spite of Marie's shushing, that it didn't fool anyone elsewithin earshot. I was five years old that night, the perfect age for the magic arts of Orson Welles, or as he preferred to call them, "hocus-pocus, mumbo jumbo, and hanky-panky." I sat there enthralled while he swallowed fire, read minds, hypnotized a rooster, pulled a rainbow of knotted scarves out of his sleeve, made a bouquet of yellow roses appear in an empty vase and a white rabbit wiggle out of a black top hat. When a man in a turban and baggy pants marched out of the wings and aimed a rifle at him, I held my breath, then screamed when the gun went off and his head snapped back. Seconds later, Orson the Magnificent turned to face the audience, and there was the bullet caught between his teeth!
Then came the moment the troops had been waiting for. A shapely young woman with copper red hair appeared on the stage. Dressed in a skimpy harem outfit, she, too, might have stepped out of the Arabian Nights. The moment she was in full view, the servicemen in the audience went wild, stamping and cheering for Rita Hayworth, their favorite pinup girl. Then the dazzling redhead folded herself into a long, rectangular box until only her head and her feet stuck out from either end. At that point, Orson the Magnificent began to wield a horrific saw and presto! The box split down the middle! Rita's top half went spinning to one side of the stage while her bottom half took off in the other direction. Yet the severed head was still smiling; the feet with the pretty painted toenails were still wiggling. Then bingo, bango, her two halves were reunited and she emerged in one piece! (I never did learn how my father performed this trick. All he would tell me years later about his Mercury Wonder Show was that he was as proud of it as anything he ever did.)
After the show's opening night, Harry Cohn, Rita's tyrannical boss at Columbia Pictures, forced her to withdraw. He argued that if she were performing late at night in a magic show, she would be exhausted early the next morning, when she was due on the set of Cover Girl, the movie she was making at the time. Rita pleaded that, after spending sixteen weeks rehearsing for Orson's show, she couldn't let him or the troops down. She was sure she could do the magic show and also fulfill her contractual commitment on Cover Girl. (Although she was too modest to admit it, Rita's star power was the Mercury Wonder Show's biggest draw and would have ensured it a long run.) But Cohn remained deaf to Rita's pleas, reminding her that it was not the role of a contract star to decide where she would work but to do as she was told. Not only did Cohn have no intention of letting his studio's most profitable star stay up late every night, working for free, he was even more opposed to her having anything to do with Orson Welles. (By the time my father met Rita, his reputation in Hollywood had plummeted from "boy genius" to "enfant terrible.")
Rita was so furious with Cohn she was ready to walk out on him and Columbia, but my father persuaded her not to throw away her movie career for the sake of his show. Once Rita calmed down, she worried about who could possibly replace her at a moment's notice. That was when my father thought of his loyal friend, Marlene Dietrich, the femme fatale from Germany with the husky voice and the beautiful long legs. It was said that posters of Marlene were banned in Paris Metro stations because any Frenchman who spotted her legs was in danger of missing his train. In any event, when my father called Marlene about performing in his magic show, she simply said, "Come teach me the tricks, and I do it."
If Cohn was gloating that he had managed to save Rita Hayworth from the insidious charms of Orson Welles, he did not gloat long. Hollywood's gossip columnists let it be known that "Beauty and the Brain" had been seen dining at a table for two at Ciro's, Romanoff's, the Brown Derby, and other restaurants popular with the stars. They had been caught holding hands across the table and gazing soulfully into each other's eyes. The only question was when wedding bells were going to ring ...
They rang on September 7, 1943. During her lunch break from Cover Girl, Rita was whisked away in my father's chauffeured car before Harry Cohn could throw himself in front of the wheels. They were married in Santa Monica in what they hoped was going to be a quiet, civil ceremony. Joseph Cotten, my father's close friend and costar in Citizen Kane, stood up as his best man. However, outside the judge's chamber, a mob of press photographers stood ready to dash any hope of a quiet wedding. They had been tipped off by Harry Cohn, who, when he realized he could no longer stop the marriage, decided to milk it for every ounce of publicity he could get.
So every tabloid in the country ran photos of the newlyweds standing side by side in a happy daze, then walking out of the municipal building on winged feet. In those pictures, just-married Rita beams like a little girl who can barely contain her delight. Yet in her stylish beige suit and floppy picture hat, she carries herself with that natural dignity, that animal grace, I remember so well. As for my father, he looks uncomfortable in his banker's striped suit and bow tie, as though determined to play a part that he knows is out of character. He gazes down at his bride, his expressions ranging from grave in one photo to tender in the next. In the final shot, holding Rita's hand firmly in his, he looks overjoyed that he of all men has captured Hollywood's love goddess.
Now came the brightest days of my childhood, which I owe to Rita. Almost every weekend, she invited me to stay with her and my father in their spacious home at 136 South Carmelina Drive. Rita had bought the ten-room house with its spectacular grounds and swimming pool when she realized she was pregnant. The contrast between my easygoing stepmother and my excessively strict mother only heightened my euphoria from the moment I arrived on South Carmelina Drive, the weekend stretching ahead like a round-the-clock party loaded with treats and surprises. I was also free of Marie on these occasions, which added to the holiday atmosphere. Instead of the usual routine of eating in the kitchen with Marie or being led off to bed while it was still light, knowing that downstairs the grown-ups were mixing their martinis and the fun was just beginning, I was allowed to hang around all the time and stay up as late as I liked.
Rita was everything a child could wish for in a stepmother: sweet-natured, affectionate, fun-loving, and, in many ways, a child herself. While my father buried his nose in a heavy book, Rita read "the funnies," as she called the daily comic strips in the newspapers. She read them religiously every morning while she breakfasted in bed, snuggled under the covers with my father, who was immersed in the rest of the paper. Their Hollywood-size bed had a padded, pink satin bolster studded with sparkly bits of glass I imagined were diamonds. There was something wonderfully reassuring about my father and Rita kissing and cuddling in the same bed, giggling at their own private jokes. (My mother and her second husband, the screenwriter Charlie Lederer, maintained separate bedrooms and were not physically demonstrative, at least not in front of me.) "Hello, darling girl," my father would boom in his basso profundo as I stood hovering in the doorway. "Well, am I going to get a kiss this morning?" Soon I was snuggled down between them in the warm, rumpled bed, reading the funnies with Rita and wishing I could stay there for the rest of the day.
I had no idea in those days that my stepmother was Hollywood's love goddess, the glamour girl whose pinup picture some GIs pasted on a bomb, which horrified her when she heard about it. The Rita I knew padded around the house barefoot and rarely bothered with makeup. Usually she was dressed in an old shirt and faded dungarees, which took nothing away from her natural beauty. When we played our wild, silly games, she often seemed younger than I was, which made me feel protective. I noticed how gentle my father was with her, careful not to tease her in the same, reckless way he teased me.
Early in her pregnancy, Rita delighted in chasing me around outside with the garden hose, especially when I was fully clothed. Finally I would grab the hose and chase her, both of us whooping and hollering, until we were soaked and overcome with giggles. We would then hear my father calling out in piteous tones, "Could the two of you please make less noise? I'm trying to work!"
For some reason we found this hilarious, and Rita would sing out, "You can't work all the time, Orsie. It will make you a dull boy."
I don't think the prospect of becoming dull worried my father. He took to hiding in the bushes in a faraway corner of the garden where all you could see of him was the wavy thread of smoke rising from his cigar. When I dared to come nearer, I would catch glimpses of him hunched over in his deck chair, the cigar clamped between his teeth while he scribbled furiously on a yellow pad. Surrounded by piles of books, scripts, magazines, and newspapers, he looked like a man on his private island who had everything he needed to make him happy.
There were times we did persuade "Orsie" to join us at the swimming pool, although not necessarily to change into his swimming trunks and splash around with us. I had swum in some glamorous pools, but this one topped them all. It had a waterfall at the shallow end, and in the middle was an island with a full-grown palm tree. A rowboat was tied up at the poolside into which, when the spirit moved him, my father would jump, fully clothed, the boat staggering under his weight and rocking dangerously until he settled himself at the oars. Then he would row around the pool, loudly singing a sea chantey in a salty Irish brogue. After this impromptu performance, he would vanish once more into the bushes.
Gliding around the pool in the rowboat was much too tame for Rita and me. Our idea of fun was to race each other to the waterfall or to the island in the middle of the pool. Rita almost always won, not that I minded, and when once in a while she let me win, I knew she was deliberately slowing down, but I pretended to be thrilled, yelling, "I won! I won!" just to see her lovely grin.
Sometimes we played at being mermaids and tried to swim all the way around the island underwater. I could never hold my breath long enough, but Rita could, and in a mock ceremony I crowned her Queen of the Mermaids.
As Rita's pregnancy progressed, our hijinks came to a natural end. Now when I was invited to South Carmelina Drive, my father was often away, and I could see Rita was lonely for him. Although she was as sweet to me as ever, she also seemed listless and distracted. I did not learn until years later that whenever they were apart, Rita suspected my father of being unfaithful to her and was racked by jealousy. Not only was she well aware of my father's reputation as a lady's man, she also knew it had bewildered him to discover that in real life she was not the luscious, sexy woman she projected on the screen. Off camera she was still Margarita Carmen Cansino, born in Brooklyn to a Spanish father and an Irish mother. As she would famously say, alluding to her best-known screen role, "Men go to bed with Gilda but wake up with me."
To ease her loneliness, Rita acquired a large white and gold cocker spaniel. She named him Pookles, which had been my father's pet name when he was a boy. While I had nothing against Pookles, I saw no reason to make such a huge fuss over him. I felt the same way about my half sister Rebecca Welles, who arrived in the world on December 17, 1944. She was a cute baby, who smiled, gurgled, and looked exactly like our father, but what did we need her for?
Although I no longer had Rita to myself, I still lived for my weekend visits with her and my father when he was around. I was more than ready to put up with Becky, Pookles, even the Mexican bullfighter who mysteriously appeared one weekend and monopolized Rita for hours. She pretended to be a bull, pointing her fingers on either side of her head, while he danced around, snapping a red tablecloth. Rita charged, the bullfighter pivoted, and my father and I stood on the sidelines shouting "Olé." "I'll take you to a real bullfight one of these days," he promised me, and years later, when we traveled together in Spain, he kept his word.
As each weekend drew to a close, I nourished the dream that one day I would not return to my mother, stepfather, and Marie. I would live permanently with my father and Rita. Although I never spoke of my dream to anyone, it was caught in a photograph taken when Becky was almost six months old and I was a few months into my seventh year. We children, barefoot and dressed in matching pinafores with ruffled sleeves, are nestled in the garden swing with our father and Pookles. The dog licks my father's chin, but it is Becky who claims his lap, her baby feet kicking, her arms stretched out to embrace the world. She gently touches Pookles, her fingers exploring his soft, curly ear. I, too, pet the dog, strictly for the camera. Our father is thinner than usual, having been on a crash diet, and he is growing a mustache for the part he will soon play as the Nazi spy in The Stranger. But in this golden moment, he is playing Daddy, and I am smiling up at him, my face radiant with hope.
I was eight and a half when my mother put me on a plane to Acapulco, Mexico, where I was to join my father and Rita for several weeks. As it was a short flight, I was traveling by myself. This was my first trip on an airplane, and when we began to soar above the clouds, I felt it was the start of a grand adventure.
When I arrived in Acapulco and Rita met me at the airport, I almost didn't recognize her. Her hair had been cropped short and bleached whiter than bone. "Why did you cut off your pretty red hair?" I wanted to know.
"I'm supposed to look evil and cold in the movie I'm making with Orsie," she explained. "Besides, my hair isn't really red, you know. When I was your age, it was almost black." I tried to imagine Rita as an eight-year-old, let alone Rita with almost black hair, but at the time it was too much for my imagination.
The movie being filmed in Acapulco was The Lady from Shanghai in which Rita played the title role. Although she had decided to divorce my father the year before I joined them in Acapulco, she had delayed filing the papers. Making The Lady from Shanghai with her husband as her director and costar was Rita's last attempt at a reconciliation.
Although I knew none of this at the time, I did notice Rita was not as relaxed and fun-loving as she had been on South Carmelina Drive, but I told myself it must be very hard for her to pretend she was "evil and cold" during the long, grueling hours she had to spend in front of the camera. Also something was different about the way my father and Rita were behaving with each other. There was too much hugging and kissing going on, and every other word was "darling." One day, in Rita's dressing room, my father used up half her lipsticks scrawling impassioned words all over her mirror. I wondered if Rita would get mad and scream at him for ruining her lipsticks-my mother certainly would have-but Rita acted as though my father had filled her dressing room with armfuls of roses. The gooey red messages stayed on her mirror for days.
Excerpted from In My Father's Shadow by Chris Welles Feder Copyright © 2009 by Chris Welles Feder. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Chris Welles Feder has spent a great part of her life working in the field of education and is known to many as a writer for the children's educational series Brain Quest. She lives with her husband in New York City.
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